Berhalter: There will be an opportunity for Efrain Alvarez with the U.S. national team

Efrain Alvarez MLS LA Galaxy 03022019

United States national team coach Gregg Berhalter said Wednesday that he and his staff are continuing to watch LA Galaxy teenager Efrain Alvarez and said the 16-year-old will get an opportunity with the U.S. if he continues to excel.

Alvarez, who is Mexican-American and has accepted call-ups for the Mexico U-15 and U-17 teams, came on as a substitute and had an assist in the Galaxy's season-opening victory over the Chicago Fire on Saturday.

A report from ESPN on Tuesday indicated that the Mexican federation is looking to bring Alvarez into the senior fold sooner rather than later and avoid another battle over a player eligible for both the U.S. and Mexico. Berhalter said he and his staff are keeping tabs on the LA native and are pleased with his progression so far. If the upward trajectory continues, the coach said, a chance will come with the U.S.

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"Regarding Efrain, for us it’s been interesting to watch from the background because he’s a guy that has taken a pathway that, you’d call it a somewhat normal pathway although it’s been accelerated," Berhalter said at a news conference Wednesday. "He started out in the academy of LA Galaxy, he played there, he went to the second team of LA Galaxy, he did really well with the second team and now he’s making an impact with the first team. That’s exactly what we want to see continuing. It would be great that he continues to chip away and get playing time and now can be a consistent performer for one of the top clubs in MLS. 

"We’ll be there watching the whole thing, and when he’s doing what we expect him to do, there will be an opportunity for him with the U.S. national team. Regarding a potential choice for him, we want to create an environment that players want to be in. We want to create a playing style, a team spirit that players want to be a part of. If we do, we’re confident we can get players like that and keep players like that in our program."

The United States has a history of wooing Mexican-American players to represent the Stars and Stripes, but Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez's decision last year to represent El Tri instead of the U.S. still looms large in the memory of many supporters.

Berhalter said he's casting a wide eye for talent in the world, watching Americans playing in Europe and South America in addition to those based in MLS or Liga MX. That includes dual-nationals, though he's evaluating them based on their quality and not simply because they could represent multiple countries.

"We’re not necessarily looking at these players as solely dual national players. We’re looking at them as players," he said. "There’s a universe of players that are eligible to play for the United States. We’re looking at all of those guys. I think that’s an important process."

Berhalter kicked off his tenure with a pair of winter matches, but with March friendly matches against Ecuador and Chile scheduled during a FIFA window, it will be the former Columbus Crew coach's first chance to call in players based in Europe. 

While previous U.S. managers like Jurgen Klinsmann have stressed the importance of players moving to Europe, Berhalter took a more pragmatic approach saying he also wants players to be challenged but for improvement to come at every level.

"I’ve said all along that every player has their own pathway. What I want for my players - each and every one of them - is that they can maximize their own potential, so then they have different ways to do that," he said. "For some of them it’s going to be going to an MLS academy, playing for an MLS second team and signing with an MLS first team really developing that way. For other guys it’s going to be different pathways and it is going to be going to Europe or it is going to be playing at a mid-level team in Europe and then making a jump from there. Every player has a different pathway."

The Americans' match against Ecuador takes place in Orlando at Orlando City Stadium on March 21 with the game against Chile in Houston coming March 26 at BBVA Compass Stadium.